How do plaque and tartar form, and what do they do?
Plaque is a gummy substance that forms on the teeth within a few hours after a meal. Within 24 hours, plaque begins to harden by combining with salts that are present in the saliva. As the plaque continues to accumulate and mineralize, it eventually transforms into tartar. Tartar, also called calculus, is rough and porous and can develop above and below the gum line.
There are two ways that tartar harms the teeth and gums.
First, tarter forms a rough surface serving as a place for bacteria to grow and multiply in the mouth. Bacteria can cause inflammation of the gums (gingivitis), which often results in painful bleeding. When gingivitis worsens, it leads to periodontal disease, increased inflammation, pain, and tooth loss (see handout on "Dental Disease in Cats"). As tartar builds up along the gum line, it pushes the gums away from the roots of the teeth. As the gums recede, they expose the sensitive, enamel-free part of the tooth which causes pain.
"Bacteria can cause inflammation of the gums, which often results in painful bleeding."
Second, the bacteria on the tartar can be absorbed into the bloodstream and deposited in various organs, including the heart and the kidneys, causing infection and decreased organ function.
How can I prevent plaque and tartar formation on my cat's teeth?
After your cat's teeth have been professionally cleaned and polished by your veterinarian under general anesthesia, home dental care is needed to help reduce plaque and tartar buildup. You can decrease plaque accumulation by:
- Feeding your cat a Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) accepted dental diet which slows plaque accumulation through mechanical or chemical means. By limiting plaque as it forms, tartar development is greatly reduced.
- Wiping the outside of the teeth (with a Q-tip) at least twice daily. This is one of the most effective ways to remove plaque before it turns into tartar. Dip the Q-tip into tuna water for flavoring to help your cat accept this procedure.
- Using a VOHC accepted water additive to reduce the bacterial count in the mouth, resulting in improved breath.
- Having your veterinarian perform a dental cleaning under general anesthesia every 6-12 months at the first sign of tartar buildup. Regular dental cleaning is as important in cats as it is in people, and it will go a long way in preventing irreversible damage to the gums and roots.
How do I know if the product I’m using to prevent tartar is actually working?
The Veterinary Oral Health Council only accepts dental products that are safe and proven to reduce the accumulation of plaque and tartar based on strict scientific studies.
A list of accepted products can be viewed at www.VOHC.org